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Leno’s Move to 10 p.m. Could Set Off Prime-Time Domino Effect

Dec 9, 2008  •  Post A Comment

NBC’s groundbreaking deal to move Jay Leno to 10 p.m. weeknights promises to radically alter the rules of prime time, even as it promises significant ramifications for numerous other aspects of the TV business.
Already reeling from NBC’s Monday massacre of the network’s executive ranks, industryites were surprised by the news that Mr. Leno had agreed to stay with the network in order to host a nightly comedy and talk show in prime time. NBC was expected to make Mr. Leno’s deal official in a 10 a.m. PST news conference today, but details of Mr. Leno’s deal were beginning to leak out Monday night:
—Mr. Leno’s show will not simply replicate the format of “The Tonight Show.” Key elements, such as a monologue and bits such as “Headlines” and “Jaywalking,” will make the transition, but Mr. Leno might not have a desk. The idea is to make sure that Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” feels like “The Tonight Show.” Mr. Leno will remain in his Burbank studios, however.
—Debbie Vickers, currently executive producer of “Tonight,” will run Mr. Leno’s prime-time show. A number of staffers will make the transistion as well, and bandleader Kevin Eubanks is expected to be invited to reprise his role in prime time.
—Mr. Leno will produce original shows between 46 and 48 weeks a year. He’s expected to begin the new show as early as August 2009.
—NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker had talked to Mr. Leno about doing an 8 p.m. show a few years ago, but Mr. Leno didn’t like the idea, thinking his show wouldn’t make sense as a prime-time anchor, people familiar with the conversations said. After doing extensive research on the idea of a 10 p.m. show, NBC pitched Mr. Leno on that idea. He again was reluctant, but as prime-time ratings for all the networks continued to erode, he reconsidered.
—NBC might not simply cut its production slate by five prime-time hours as a result of the deal with Mr. Leno. It’s possible the network could decide to have a certain time-slot play host to more than one show—”Law & Order” could share a time period with “Medium,” for example, assuming both shows return.
Such a scenario would help NBC achieve its stated goal of offering viewers original programming all year long.
Still, the cost advantages of the deal with Mr. Leno no doubt affected NBC’s decision to move forward with the plan. How much might NBC save? One industry insider estimates the network will be able to produce an entire week of shows from Mr. Leno at the same cost of a high-end scripted drama such as “My Own Worst Enemy.”
As for the creative community, one NBC producer praised NBC’s deal with Mr. Leno but expressed some anxiety about its impact.
“It’s brilliant, but it’s scary for the writers of the universe,” the producer said. “It’s a major sea-change.”
It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that Mr. Leno started seriously considering the idea of staying at NBC in the 10 p.m. slot. The actual deal came together within the last few days.
Industry insiders familiar with Mr. Leno’s thinking said the comic ultimately didn’t want to have to start over again at another network, if at all possible. He’s been at NBC for 17 years, and it’s possible several of his key staffers wouldn’t have been able to follow him to another network.
And because of a non-compete clause in his contract, Mr. Leno would have been off the air for up to nine months had he left NBC. Now he’ll be off for about three.
Rival networks still were digesting news of NBC’s new 10 p.m. plan, and while they hailed it as a smart compromise, none seemed particularly worried.
“My first gut reaction was, ‘Holy shit, this is great’,” a veteran from a competing broadcaster said. His belief: Dramas such as “CSI: Miami” and “Private Practice” will have a better shot at success opposite Mr. Leno than against “Law & Order: SVU” or “Medium.”
CBS executives also are probably breathing a sigh of relief since David Letterman will now be competing against Mr. O’Brien and the first half of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” without also having to battle Mr. Leno.
Observers also noted NBC’s overall weak standings in prime-time made the concept of Mr. Leno at 10 p.m. a much more reasonable gamble.
Most insiders believe NBC will be very happy if Mr. Leno’s 10 p.m. show averages a 2.5 rating among adults 18-49. As recently as five years ago, such a performance would have been considered a disaster for NBC. Now, it matches what many of NBC’s 10 p.m. dramas turn in today.
“From NBC’s point of view, I get it,” the rival programmer said. “But you only do this if you’re in a real place of desperation with your schedule. A network with a healthy prime time doesn’t take this chance. But for them, a 2.5 [rating] at 10 p.m. every night could look like a life preserver. ”
Another network insider, however, said that even if Mr. Leno meets expectations, NBC could be looking at being in third place at 10 p.m. every night.
What’s more, NBC now has five fewer time slots in which to try out new dramas, making it all the more difficult for the network to find the next “Heroes” or “ER.” NBC sympathizers, however, point out that most of TV’s big drama guns these days air at 9 p.m., from “Grey’s Anatomy” and “CSI” to “Desperate Housewives” and first-year hit “The Mentalist.”
Local affiliates might also warm to the idea of Mr. Leno as a lead-in to late local news. His show now has a strong adults 25-54 bent, exactly the demographic newscasts target.
“Are the affiliates going to like Leno more than ‘Law & Order: SVU’? No. But they’ll definitely like it more than ‘Lipstick Jungle’ or ‘My Own Worst Enemy’,” the executive from another network said.
One of the big question marks, of course, is how Mr. Leno’s 10 p.m. show will impact “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien.”
Most observers immediately focused on the booking wars, noting that Mr. Leno may now become the first stop for stars looking to promote their projects. His prime-time audience will likely be larger than that of his late-night rivals, giving him first crack at the biggest names.
While such a scenario may create some talent management issues for NBC, Mr. O’Brien and his producers would have faced a similar dilemma had Mr. Leno jumped ship to another network. Now, instead of competing with a Jay Leno under contract to a rival, Mr. O’Brien will be dealing with a Leno who is part of the Peacock pride.
One of the biggest risks for NBC is if Mr. Leno completely bombs at 10 p.m. If that happens, the network could face the prospect of having to quickly find five hours of programming to fill.
Another big loser in the 10 p.m. Leno scenario: Writers and agents. With NBC airing football in the fall and repeats on Saturday, the network will potentially program just 10 hours per week of original scripted fare in the fall. Add in one or two reality shows such as “The Biggest Loser,” and suddenly there aren’t many slots on NBC’s lineup to fill.
While much is rightly being made of NBC’s decision to strip Mr. Leno at 10 p.m., this is not the first time a network has relied on one show in order to lower production costs.
In the late 1990s, NBC aired newsmagazine “Dateline NBC” as often as five nights a week during parts of the season.
Likewise, at the height of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” fever at the turn of the century, ABC scheduled the game show on four nights a week, and sometimes aired the show more frequently.
Mr. Leno also isn’t the first talk show host to have a regular prime-time presence on TV.
In the 1960s, Merv Griffin’s syndicated talk show aired in prime time on a number of Metromedia-owned stations, including those in New York and Los Angeles.

3 Comments

  1. I think they’ll find they now have two very pissed off guys in late night.
    This is like bringing in a senior VP to supervise the other VPs.
    http://iamatvjunkie.typepad.com/i_am_a_tv_junkie_a_blog_f/2008/12/who-are-the-two-most-pissed-off-guys-in-television-today.html

  2. This will either work really well, or it will fall by this time next year.
    Jay is a popular guy, but people have him nitched in their minds for “after the news”.
    Jack Parr went primetime after his stint on the Tonight Show and it was his undoing for network TV.
    If this keeps friend Ellen directing, others working and viewers watching, then good.
    Peter Bright

  3. I like this because it fills an immediate need for NBC.
    Most importantly it fills a viewer need. Ask anyone you know older than 50. The thought of Jay going away and Conan taking over is scary.
    This puts an aging Leno in an earlier time slot where the older demos are, and allows Conan to make that next jump to a younger generation.
    Carson~Leno~Conan…each host was a jump to a different generation/audience.
    This might work well for more reasons than the initial cost savings and prime programming stop gap.

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